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date: 28 May 2020

Summary and Keywords

Time is an inherent, constitutive aspect of narrative, whether the narrative concerns fiction or fact. To speak of narrative is to invoke time and multiple temporalities. Aristotle’s emphasis on action as a primary component of narrative implicitly acknowledges time as fundamental, since any action requires time. Whether narrative is seen as a series of connected events or as primarily the creation of a storyworld, the functional and structural roles of time stand. As a result of this, time has been one of the most analyzed, researched, and theorized subjects in the field of narrative theory. Discussions concerning such narrative concepts as story, plot, character, or point of view can hardly avoid considering temporal dynamics. And the elemental nature of time in narrative remains constant whether narrative is conceived more narrowly as depending on the presence of a narrator or is defined as the conjunction of a story and its representation.

To consider the ways in which narratives involve the interrelationships of different temporalities is also to be reminded of the disjunction between so-called “real” or clock time and time as it is experienced. In contrast to the uniform directionality of clock time, time as it is experienced is constantly intertwined with memory and anticipation: that is, any experienced present is also interwoven with multiple pasts and futures. Narrative time captures this experience. Since a narrative is always a representation, a particular and subjective presentation of a story, the chronological sequence of events in a narrative may be represented in an infinite variety of ways. A given story can be told from its beginning moving through to its conclusion, or it can start with the end and build the story by revisiting earlier events, or it may start in the middle and proceed toward its end and at various points tack backward to earlier points, or it can do any combination of these. A representation of a story can create two storylines in parallel, the narrative crosscutting between the concurrent storylines, just as individuals can participate in one spatial-temporal setting while also immersed in another, whether technologically (as on the telephone or Internet) or mentally. In this way narrative time is in many ways truer to human experience than what is conventionally thought of as real time, namely the uniform absolute time undermined by Einstein’s discovery of relativity.

What seems indisputable is that humans are hardwired to create and communicate with narrative; they habitually generate and trade in narratives as a way of making meaning of experience and of building connections with fellow humans. As a result, humans also constantly manipulate time, making sense of past, present, and future experiences through narrative. Just as anticipation of the future relies on the sense one makes of the present, the act of remembering has more to do with making narrative meaning than with accessing some fixed or stable mental recording of an event. Time is something an audience actively creates rather than something it passively experiences, and this may be borne out most vividly in the continuous activity of making narratives.

Keywords: formalism, structuralism, story, discourse, narration, order, duration, tempo, time, fiction

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